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SharePoint - The Next Gen Corporate Social Networking Solution

- a powerful business collaboration tool that enables corporate to connect and empower people-

With 700 million people on Facebook, 50 million on LinkedIn, 150 million on Twitter and blog posts in the millions, the world at large has embraced social networking with single-minded passion.

But the same cannot be said for Businesses. Research shows that although employees of some organisations have tried to improvise internal networks through external solutions such as Facebook, which in reality have not added great value to their respective Companies; Organisations themselves have been reticent due to more reasons than one - one of the biggest constraints being security.

But that equation is fast changing with Companies like Microsoft offering managed solutions such as SharePoint which encompasses enterprise wide social networking capabilities. Microsoft SharePoint 2010 which is a business collaboration platform for the Enterprise and the Web enables organisations to connect and empower people through an integrated set of features that can be deployed as Intranet, Extranet or Internet facing solutions.

Anton Canisious, Business Productivity Solutions Specialist for Microsoft Sri Lanka, says “SharePoint is much more than a mere social networking tool. It is a business tool that helps corporates to address a variety of business needs, such as knowledge management, information collaboration and enterprise social networking. Our customers have built solutions to improve business process via workflows, gain business insights via dashboards, implement policy driven document and records management that integrates with core business applications and for building enterprise learning management systems. The possibilities of using SharePoint to provide solutions are endless and would depend on an organisation’s different business needs”

Ruwan Fernando, Chief Architect & Managing Partner of Innovative-e, a business consultancy & technology solutions company spread across 3 locations in the US and in Sri Lanka says that SharePoint is the platform on which his Company’s business runs.

“It provides the services we need to carry on our day to day operations, be it time tracking, document storage, tracking and collaboration, software development lifecycle management or issue tracking” he says.

A specialist in the Microsoft .NET platform, Visual Basic and SharePoint, Ruwan Fernando leads the application development services for Innovative-e, Inc., a certified Gold Partner of Microsoft. He is an expert in software release management methodologies and has architected various enterprise software solutions.

Ruwan says that SharePoint helps an organisation by providing the tools and services it needs to improve collaboration. “It helps in many ways such as tracked and searchable communications through the use of discussion boards, version tracked documents and Wikis etc.; provides high visibility with Dashboards and KPIs for running an organisation and enables a single source of information through features like the business connectivity services (BCS) to bring in data from non SharePoint Line of Business (LOB) applications.”

Features like business connectivity services in SharePoint makes it possible to surface line of business application data to those who wouldn’t normally have access to this application. SharePoint also has good support for building workflows and these workflows when implemented correctly help to have better defined and executed business processes as well as facilitating better auditability.

According to Ruwan the awareness and usage of SharePoint has increased in Sri Lanka due to demand from the western and mid-eastern world for highly skilled SharePoint resources. Other reasons for this increase, he claims are the number of awareness programmes such as SharePoint Saturday, Colombo (a one day conference co-organised by Microsoft Sri Lanka) coupled with an active interest from higher education organisations to provide some of these skills to university graduates.

“Apart from this the demand for offshore SharePoint skills has brought in revenue to the IT industry” he says. “It has helped keep salary scales of engineers with these skill sets at higher levels than for standard .NET development or other non Microsoft technology sets.”

However, Ruwan says that implementing SharePoint can sometimes pose a challenge partly because it has gained a name for being easy to setup and configure and as a result some organisations don’t go through sufficient planning. “For SharePoint to be successful within an organisation, its implementation must be well thought out and planned. There has to be a clear understanding of what the solution is good at and its strengths must be exploited and Training is another key factor.”

He says that out of organisations that successfully implemented SharePoint in Sri Lanka, Brandix is a very good example. The Group has had a long history of using SharePoint and was one of the pioneers to adopt it as an organisation wide collaboration platform.

Mr. Manoj Pilimatalawe, Head of Group ICT at Brandix Lanka Ltd. commenting on their experience stated, “We started testing SharePoint 2010 during its Beta release and subsequently migrated all our existing SharePoint applications to the final version as soon as it was released. Ever since then, we have been extensively using its Workflow, Document Management, Dashboards and Record Management features.

One of the key advantages has been its ability to run complex workflows while integrating to our ERP and other legacy systems. Additionally, we are also using it heavily as the main group document archiving platform. We are in the process of extending the solution for Knowledge Management & E-Learning as well as Social Networking. We are happy with SharePoint 2010 as it offers a suite of features, which are in line with Brandix’s IS requirements.”

With the arrival of SharePoint Online, which is a part of Office 365, a cloud based offering from Microsoft, it is likely that many more Sri Lankan organisations will embrace SharePoint especially as its initial cost isn’t very high. “Also the next version of Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Office are being developed and tested as we speak. We have seen preliminary versions of these but are under a strict non-disclosure agreement not to divulge any details. All I can say at this point is that there will be even more scope for customizing SharePoint and the demand for developers who know the solution will only increase” says Ruwan Fernando.

Be that as it may, SharPoint’s corporate social networking capabilities are only bound to be more pronounced in the new versions to come. It is in the public domain that Microsoft recently acquired ‘Yammer’, a leading provider of enterprise social networks which the Company says will underscore their commitment to deliver technology that businesses need. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft has said that Yammer adds a best-in-class enterprise social networking service to Microsoft’s growing portfolio of complementary cloud services.

Launched in 2008, Yammer now has more than 5 million corporate users, including employees at 85 percent of the Fortune 500. The service allows employees to join a secure, private social network for free and then makes it easy for companies to convert a grassroots movement into companywide strategic initiative.

News reports say that Microsoft plans to accelerate Yammer’s adoption alongside complementary offerings from Microsoft SharePoint, Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics and Skype - exciting news for Enterprises.